Christopher Marlowe Poetry: British Analysis
Christopher Marlowe’s lyric poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is known in several versions of varying length. C. F. Tucker Brooke’s 1962 reprint of his 1910 edition of Marlowe’s works cites the six-stanza version of England’s Helicon, with variant readings provided in the notes. Frederick S. Boas, in Christopher Marlowe: A Biographical and Critical Study, puts the case for holding that only the first four stanzas are certainly Marlowe’s. Fredson Bowers, in the second volume of his monumental The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe (1973), offers a “reconstructed” four-stanza version of the original poem printed alongside the six-stanza version of England’s Helicon. All versions provide a delightful and innocuous exercise in the pastoral tradition of happy innocent shepherds sporting in a bucolic setting. Simply put, a lover outlines for his sweetheart the beauties and pleasures she can expect if she will live with him and be his love. Nature and the rejoicing shepherds will provide the pair with entertainment, clothing, shelter, and all things fitting to an amorous paradise.
“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”
The stanza is a simple quatrain rhyming in couplets. While it is a fine example of Elizabethan taste for decoration and is very pleasing to the ear, it presents nothing especially clever in its prosody. A few of the couplets are fresh enough in their rhymes, such as “falls/ madrigalls,” “kirtle/ Mirtle,” and “buds/ studs,” but the rest are common enough. The alliteration falls short of being heavy-handed, and it achieves neither clearness nor subtlety. The poem’s appeal, then, seems to lie mostly in its evocation of young love playing against an idealized background, its simple language and prosody forming part of its overt innocence.
Sir Walter Ralegh’s famous response, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” also published in England’s Helicon, sets all the cynicism associated with the carpe diem poetry of a John Donne or an Andrew Marvell against Marlowe’s pose of innocence. Ralegh’s shepherdess argues that the world and love are too old to allow her to be seduced by “pretty pleasures.” She speaks of aging, of the cold of winter, of the sweet appearance that hides bitterness and approaching death. She scorns his offers of beauty, shelter, and love as things that decay and rot. Were youth, love, and joy eternal, and old age well provided for, then she might love. Both poems are set-pieces and imply nothing except that both poets were makers working within established traditions. The innocence of Marlowe’s poem argues nothing about his own personality and much about his ability to project himself imaginatively into a character and a situation. In doing this, he produced a gem, and that is enough.
Hero and Leander
In contrast to the simple, single-leveled “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” Hero and Leander is a more complex, more sophisticated poem. Whatever ultimate plans Marlowe may have had for the completed poem, the two completed sestiads are in the comic mode as they portray the fumbling yearnings and actions of two adolescents faced with passions with which they are totally unprepared to deal. The story of young love, then, is constantly undercut with one sort of comedy or another.
Perhaps the easiest clues to Marlowe’s comic intention lie in his choice of epic style and heroic couplets, both of which lend themselves to witty parody because they are traditionally used seriously. The epic tradition allows Marlowe to pay his lovers elaborate, and obviously exaggerated, compliments through the use of epic similes and through comparison with the classical tales of gods and heroes. The heroic couplet allows him to emphasize the fun with variations of the meter and with comic rhymes, generally feminine ones.
The retelling of the famous tale of two ill-fated lovers—whose trysts require Leander to swim across the Hellespont to visit Hero in her tower—begins soberly enough, as a mock-epic should. By the ninth line, however, Marlowe begins a description of Hero’s garments that is wildly ornate and exaggerated in style. Her dress, for example, is lined with purple and studded with golden stars; the sleeves are green and are embroidered with a scene of Venus, naked, viewing the slain and bloody Adonis; her veil reaches to the ground and is so realistically decorated with artificial vegetation that men mistake her breath for the odor of flowers and bees search it for honey. The picture, thus far, could pass as an example of Elizabethan taste for the gaudy, and becomes clearly comic only in retrospect.
The twenty-fifth line, however, presents a figure that sets the anticlimactic tone informing the whole piece. Hero’s necklace is described as a chain of ordinary pebbles that the beauty of her neck makes shine as diamonds. Later on, her naked beauty causes an artificial dawn in her bedchamber, to Leander’s delight. The improbabilities are piled on thickly: Her hands are not subject to burning because sun and wind alike delight in them as playthings; sparrows perch in her shell buskins; Cupid could not help mistaking her for his mother, Venus; and Nature itself resented having been plundered of its rightful beauty by this slip of a girl. Marlowe points up the...
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